A country’s biggest resource is its people

21 January 2014 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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South Sudan, the world’s youngest state, is only two years old. It’s an extremely fragile entity, threatened by a hostile big brother in the north and needs to run a race against time if it’s to survive against great odds – lack of experience and skilled professionals in all vital sectors, including bureaucracy and governing, inadequate infrastructure and a largely poor and illiterate population of 9.5 million.  Its   people have been ravaged by many years of civil war, when the dominant northerners ran a genocidal war against the southern minority.  The title of the fledgling state’s armed forces – Sudan People’s Liberation army (SPLA) – sums up the nation’s history. The ruling party is known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
But South Sudan makes a miraculous turnabout. It has two aces up its sleeve – oil revenue, and committed politicians who know how to use it wisely. The country’s rulers invest this money with sound, realistic development goals, with citizens’ welfare foremost in mind. Military spending is kept at realistic levels, with diplomacy and keeping peace with the northern big brother seen as a bigger priority.

Much of the money goes into the vital education and higher education sectors, with the goal of bringing the literacy rate up to 60% in a decade for both sexes, compulsory schooling up to university entrance, free health care, building two thousand new schools, five universities, three medical colleges and a dozen technical colleges. Expansion of the road and rail network would make access to remote areas easier, with electricity and running water for all villages, each village having its own solar and wind power projects. Basic housing would be provided for 80% of the population. Agricultural production increases significantly and South Sudan becomes a food exporter. Not content to depend on oil and agriculture, an industrial sector consisting of milk and cereal products, plastics, ceramics, garments and assembly of electronics, motorcycles and light vehicles is planned with Chinese, Korean and European help. Ambitious as these plans seem, they are entirely achievable provided South Sudan doesn’t get embroiled in a war.

"Its enemies this time are from within the country. Tribal rivalries which smouldered under the surface during the civil war have now surfaced with a vengeance, resulting in massacres with thousands killed and driving the population into refugee camps"


One wishes that was true. Unfortunately, exactly the opposite is happening. Its enemies this time are from within the country. Tribal rivalries which smouldered under the surface during the civil war have now surfaced with a vengeance, resulting in massacres with thousands killed and driving the population into refugee camps. The fighting began on Dec. 15 is between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and ex-Vice President Riek Machar. Kiir belongs to the Dinka tribe and Machar to the Nuer.

In a familiar scenario, the UN has deployed over 12,000 peacekeepers from Uganda, India and other countries. Several have been killed. This is the last thing the South Sudanese need, after decades of civil war which killed an estimated two million people with four million more left homeless. In the western state of Darfur, over 2.5 million people lost their homes. About 1.7 million still live in refugee camps.

The war ended with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in January 2005. A decade of peace is vital for a country which is one of poorest and most underdeveloped in the world. It has the highest maternal mortality and female illiteracy rates in the world and 51% of the population live below the poverty line. Per capita income is US$ 861, while the growth rate is a depressing minus 55.8%. Some African countries have even lower per capita income levels.  In Zimbabwe, for example, it’s only $600. While both countries could prosper if only they have leaders committed to nationhood, South Sudan has what Zimbabwe lacks – a fresh start as a new country.

 The country’s dependent more than ever on foreign aid despite its oil revenues. The oil is exploited by companies from China, Malaysia, India and Sudan respecti vely, with China claiming 40% of all operations. American companies are barred from operating here as Sudan is on the US list of international supporters of terrorism, and Khartoum insists on a share of profits from all South Sudanese oil revenue. China has offered to build a pipeline to Kenya as a way out of this problem, but no decision has been taken yet and it looks very unlikely, if the country is going to be ravaged by internecine warfare.

Before independence, the South produced 85% of Sudan’s total crude oil output (production began in 1999), hence Khartoum’s desire to crush the rebellious Southerners. Despite appalling human rights abuses, the Khartoum regime failed to achieve this goal due to the Southerners’ resilience plus steady international pressure. Under the 2005 peace agreement, oil revenue was to be divided equally between north and south. Khartoum would get 50% of oil revenues. South Sudan is totally dependent on the north to export its oil. Oil exports represent over 98% of the total GDP. Total oil revenues aren’t that big and the country must use it wisely if it’s to prevail against such odds.

And yet, the country has considerable other resources.  The River Nile passes through the country, and many of its tributaries have their sources here. South Sudan is rich in agricultural land. But agricultural output declined after oil production began.  At independence, just 4.5% of available arable land was being cultivated. Food is now being imported from Sudan, Kenya and Uganda. Transport costs plus inflation (running at over 44%) means that food is very expensive, and shortages are common.

South Sudan exports timber. It has considerable untapped deposits of iron ore, copper, zinc, mica, gold, silver and other deposits.
But any country’s biggest resource is its people. Given ten years’ of stable growth, the country should be prosperous, with proper planning to train skilled workers and professionals for vital sectors. But stability looks very unlikely with old tribal rivalries being exploited by unscrupulous, power-hungry politicians. The fragility of the economy is demonstrated by the fluctuation of GDP, which reached an all-time high of $21.1 billion in 2011 only to plummet to $9.3 billion the following year. Even poverty-stricken Kenya, with a GDP of $37.23 billion in 2012, looks prosperous by comparison.

Internationally, South Sudan ceased to be news less than a week after trouble broke out. Even Mali is considered more newsworthy, which shows what a basket case South Sudan has become. It reflects a chronic inability, manifest all over the developing world, to capitalise on the prized gain of independence. Zimbabwe, with much greater resources at independence four decades ago, has become another basket case. If anyone is feeling complacent, Sri Lanka which was an Asian model for development at independence is rapidly falling into the same slot. Anyone looking at Africa with condescension should take a good look at their own neighbourhoods and backyards.

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